Summer Camp Guide: Getting the Most out of the Camp Experience

Tips to help your kids have a successful summer, whether they’re a first-time camper, trying something new or a seasoned pro.

Nicholas Youngblood
A Recreation Unlimited counselor and two campers swim in the lap pool.

Summer camp allows kids to create lifelong memories and uncover passions that will last a lifetime. But sometimes a little help from parents and counselors can make a good thing even better. Particularly if your child is a first-time camper, there are a lot of things to think about.

We asked staff members from several Central Ohio programs for some useful tips and advice to ensure campers make the most of their experience while hopefully putting parents’ minds at ease.

What to Know Before You Commit

The most important steps to make sure your child has an awesome summer camp experience take place long before they leave for their big adventure. Ashley Price, director of student experiences at the PAST Foundation, says it is important to consider the interests of your child before signing them up. If they’re interested in technology, an outdoor camp might not suit them as well as STEM-focused programs.

The American Camp Association suggests that in addition to the theme, parents also talk with children about how far away from home they are comfortable traveling and whether a half-day or full-day program is best.

When selecting a camp, it is essential to make sure both you and your child are aware of the activities that await them. All the mental and emotional preparation in the world won’t fix a wet pair of socks, so packing proper clothing and supplies is a must. When in doubt, Price encourages parents to reach out to camp staff. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says.

First-timers will want to ensure they label everything they bring, and don’t forget summer essentials such as sunscreen, bug spray and the like. The ACA has a list of suggested items on its website, but use your camp’s list as the official guide.  

Campers Should Be Ready to Try New Things

Price says campers also should be prepared for experiences that get them out of their comfort zone. “You come to camp to try new things and to find out what you like. And so you may come in, and you may fail at something,” Price says. “But don’t be afraid to fail, because you get the opportunity to go back and try again.”

Accepting and learning from failure is a common lesson that camps try to teach. A weeklong camp provides children with a chance to push their boundaries in a low-risk environment, away from the social and academic pressures of school. At the same time, it presents a host of intimidating new experiences.

Kelsey Hopkins, an instructor and Goldsmith Artist in Residence at Columbus Children’s Theatre, says struggling is nothing to be ashamed of. “These are the places where it’s a safe space to really just test yourself and discover yourself,” she says.

Students test water samples for pH and nitrate levels, temperature, turbidity and more during a PAST Foundation summer camp.

Hopkins recommends practicing mindfulness with your child. Campers who regularly check in with themselves are less likely to let their anxiety get out of hand. She says camp is a perfect place for kids to practice emotional maturity and self-advocacy. “What makes them have a great time is that they really understand that they have a voice, and they can express their needs to an adult,” Hopkins says.

This sort of self-awareness can help campers connect with each other as well as find enjoyment for themselves. Collaboration is key to most summer camp activities, so Hopkins encourages kids to build empathy for one another. “Pep talk them, and support your friends when it’s their turn, because you want the same thing when you’re doing your thing,” she says.

Hopkins cites social interaction as a common challenge for campers, especially in recent years. Pandemic isolation and social media exposure have intensified their insecurities while deepening their desire for connection. She suggests kids treat camp as a social workout, strengthening their patience, listening skills and confidence.

Fostering Communication at Camp

Stormy Gibson, executive director of the Ohio Wildlife Center, says fitting in is a universal concern for camp attendees. “They take a whole year to get comfortable with their instructors or their teachers at a traditional school, and we ask these campers to get very comfortable in talking or interacting with our camp instructors in a very short period of time,” Gibson says.

She advises kids to “go in with an open mind and an open heart.” This also applies to summer camp veterans, who can pursue new experiences and help newbies feel welcome.

The common thread is communication. Parents should communicate with their children and camp staff about what to expect, and children should speak up to ensure they have a positive experience.

Paul Huttlin, CEO of Recreation Unlimited, which serves individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, says parents can help staff by being clear about the needs of their child. Although parents might be worried about their baby bird leaving the nest, they should trust camp staff to have their best interests in mind. “What makes it successful for us is the information that we get from parents,” he says. “That’s very, very important, because they know their child better than we do.”

Gibson stresses that it’s always better to be proactive if a child has unique needs, but you can’t prepare for everything. A benefit of day camps is that parents can check in with their kids and camp staff before things get out of hand. She recommends parents ask their child specific questions about their day, instead of opting for the open-ended, “Did you have fun?” Try asking about the high and low points of their day. If things seem especially negative, don’t be afraid to bring it up with camp staff.

With the right preparation, camp is more than just a fun summer activity; it can be a formative experience. “I see them grow,” says Hopkins. “I’ve had kids since they were 12, and now they’re graduating high school. And to see them become adults is so weird, because they’re all so awesome. … They’re so compassionate and have a lot of good friendships and relationships.”

The American Camp Association has numerous resources to help parents prepare for camp, including how to choose a program, dealing with homesickness and packing tips. Learn more at acacamps.org.

This story is from the Spring 2022 issue of Columbus Parent.